Eugene Downing Interviewed
(interviewed on 24 September 2000)
This document is the edited version by Eugene of notes taken of the interview between him and Ciaran Crossey with John Quinn. The interview had been held on Saturday 24th September 2000, Valley Mount, Blessington, County Wicklow.
Going to Spain
Eugene came from a nationalist family, with one uncle who had been involved with the republican movement. That was Gregory Murphy. During the Irish War of Independence the family had to hide the tricolour as the government forces would have attacked them if it had been found. Murphy later took the anti-treaty side.
In the local library in Kevin Street, Dublin, Eugene came across a number of left wing books and read them. He remembered in particular a book on dialectics. As his political ideas started to develop Eugene also had to start preparing for work. To do this he went to the technical college in Kevin Street where he successfully completed a two-year course as an electrician. After that he had to look for a job but couldn't get one, leading to a period of unemployment.
Around this time Eugene came across, and joined, the Revolutionary Workers Groups, the precursor to the Communist Party. He then began to help out in the printing of the party paper, Workers' Voice. In effect he became a printer for the party. The paper was printed on an old-fashioned lead letters press. That means that all the letters had to be physically selected, arranged into words, squeezed into the layout and then the whole lot put through the printing process. Once each page was printed, the lead letters would be dismantled and used again. After using this old machine, Eugene remarked that they did move up a grade by using a flatbed machine.
Eugene was a member of the Communist Party of Ireland and attended the 1934 and 1935 Wolfe Tone Commemorations at Bodenstown. In 1934 the party had intended to carry their banners so Eugene had helped bring them down the night before, keeping them at the site overnight in a tent.
When the parade stewards approached them and said that they were not allowed to carry their banner the CP there was some discussion before the CP group agreed. One member of the party, Flanagan, a railway worker, was so disgusted by this that decision that he dropped out of the party. He later rejoined.
Eugene said that he thought that it was wrong to have decided to carry a banner and then to pull back. When the party banners were blocked, as were those of the Republican Congress, the party members joined the Congress supporters at the initial assembly point for a meeting, which was addressed by George Gilmore.
In the Revolutionary Workers Groups/Communist Party of Ireland there would be roughly 40 people along at Dublin aggregate meetings in the mid-1930’s. These were not all activists; some would be on the margins of the activity but attended larger meetings. As well as these numbers there would be party members outside of Dublin but even allowing for 50-60 members the numbers of men who went to Spain represented a large portion of the party activists.
In the mid-1930's "nothing much was happening". [See his article on the attack on Connolly House for an impression of the mood of the Catholic Church.] The strength of the Left was "greatly exaggerated by the Church and by Reaction. This exaggeration allowed them to use repressive legislation like the Coercion Bill. They passed a list of proscribed organisations, most of which were really the same half dozen people wearing different hats."
Because "nothing much was happening" Eugene had actually dropped out of activity with the communists until the Spanish Civil War came along. When it happened it "was an opportunity to do something". Most of the men "were frustrated, you had the likes of Prendergast who was a trained revolutionary leader with nothing to lead. Spain was a way of clearing the frustration. The Lefts were fighting for socialism, and it was necessary as a part of that struggle to defend democracy. It would be easier to fight for socialism under bourgeois democracy than under repressive fascism."
Individuals like Prendergast and Nalty saw a way forward in Spain. Nalty had been in the IRA, he was a military figure and probably got a sense of personal satisfaction in fighting in Spain. On a personal level Eugene agreed to go to Spain when Prendergast, who had been a friend since school, asked him to go. Prendergast had been back in Dublin to recuperate from wounds.
To get to Spain you had to go through Communist Party channels, you couldn't just decide to go and travel on your own. You had to go to the CP offices in Litchfield Street, London, or via the Belfast and Dublin office. You'd have a group leader appointed and then travel with him through Southern France. "The French authorities must have known about the volunteers going to Spain because of the numbers of men passing through Paris and the South of France."
Eugene travelled to Spain in March 1938 in the company of Jack Nalty, Paddy Duff, and Jim O'Regan of Cork and another Cork man. From Dublin they went through Liverpool where they collected Hugh Hunter of Belfast. The second Cork man got as far as Paris but he was sent home as he failed the medical examination. Nalty and Duff were going back for the second time after spending a period in Ireland recovering from their wounds received during 1937.
This group of volunteers was the second last to leave from Ireland. The last group included Bill McGregor, who'd been in the International Lenin School in Moscow, Alec Digges and Tom O'Brien. Finally Mick O'Riordan went out in April 1938, he was probably the last Irish volunteer.
As he was arriving in Spain Franco was advancing into Catalonia through the Aragon. In the confusion the Italians captured most of the British Battalion, including Frank Ryan. The new recruits appeared in the period following this major loss of men. Downing went to Figueras, then onto Barcelona. They settled for a while in Barcelona where he remembers sleeping on floors.
From there they went to Marsa, his final training camp, while the authorities were rebuilding the army for the forthcoming battle of the Ebro. Paddy O'Sullivan was in charge of them during June and July, eventually becoming commander of No. 1 Company of the reformed battalion. The volunteers were drilled and taught Spanish command terms. Eventually they got some proper rifles. Maurice Ryan was very competent in the machine gun company.
In July 1938 they crossed the Ebro. On the second day after crossing the river, they arrived at a position facing the hills at Gandesa which were occupied by Franco's forces.
It was impossible to capture the town and hold it while the enemy occupied the high ground. We would just be a sitting target. Franco won the battle through sheer weight of metal and eventually the republican army was driven back across the river. But the Ebro offensive did at least divert Franco from Valencia at that time.
Eugene was wounded in the foot, getting sent to the hospital at Mataro 20 miles north of Barcelona. He left hospital in Spain in October 1938, spending the next two months recovering from the loss of his lower leg from a below the knee amputation.
On his way home from Spain Eugene travelled with Tom Murphy (originally from Monaghan and then Belfast), Alec Digges and Mick Lehane. Murphy had also been wounded, losing his left arm up on the shoulder joint so that the false arm he was supplied with failed to work at all, leaving him in a position where he didn't use it.
Murphy stopped off in London while the other three travelled onto Dublin where they arrived on Wednesday, December 21st 1938. They were the last Irish volunteers to arrive back with the exception of Paddy Duff, who had also been wounded, who came back in early 1939.
Eugene spent all of World War 2 in London, where he was employed in the Finance Department of the Middlesex County Council as clerk keeping records of the expenditure on Highways. He returned to Dublin for some years but went back to London and was employed in the billing section of British Gas.
My experience of political commissars was that they were more like welfare officers in their relations with the men of the battalion. Their main political duty was to keep us informed as to what was happening on the international scene. But as far as the men personally were concerned their job was to sort out problems in the initial stages before they developed into serious issues requiring strict military discipline. An example of this was when a member of the battalion who was a Cypriot was called a 'greasy Greek'. The Greek Cypriot complained to the company commissar, Michael Economides. Michael spoke to the offender pointing out that the last place he had expected to hear such offensive language was in the International Brigades. The offender was very contrite and apologised."
Charlie Donnelly regarded himself as a Marxist. He was in the Republican Congress and he was a Marxist, but he was never a member of the CP. Because he refused to give up his political activities his father refused to pay his university fees and so he had to leave UCD. The story that he was expelled by the university authorities for political reasons is incorrect.
Physically he was very frail. Frank Ryan said he would never have sent him to the front but he had no control over him once he joined the Americans in the Lincoln Battalion., Charlie Donnelly was, in my opinion, the only person with the literary ability to have produced a classic account of the Irish experience in Spain.
Peter Daly:- He died in hospital at Benicasim.
Paddy Duff:-He was the last Irishman to return from Spain to Ireland, arriving early in 1939 as he had been in hospital. After the SCW he was involved in the first experiment by Professor Haldane into the Thetis submarine disaster. 99 sailors had died on the maiden voyage of this British submarine, so Haldane was conducting experiments into the effects of carbon dioxide gas, etc. Haldane had been out in Spain and so the first people he used for the experiments were all Spanish veterans. Long after the SCW Duff got a job as a full time official for the Workers Union of Ireland, dying in 1972.
Eamon McGrotty:-In the book about the newspaper, An t-Eireannach, there are two photographs of McGrotty who worked as an advertising agent for this Irish language paper.
Ewart Milne:-He was a "Quaker type, an ambulance driver. He later changed his mind about Spain, said he had been wrong." Eugene first met him when they were both involved with the Frank Ryan Release Committee. They went along to the Houses of Commons in London to meet a senior Labour Party official who refused to ask a parliamentary question for them, or to pose for a group photograph. They went ahead with the photograph anyway and it was carried in some Cork newspaper. [See his book for details of the date and party official.]
Jack Nalty:- His sister was a pious catholic who was very worried about the fate of his soul as he had fought on the republican side in Spain. Fr. Michael O'Flanagan, a republican priest spoke to her and said that Nalty had been doing the right thing when he died, and because of that God would look after him, so she needn't worry. This did relieve her worries.
Sam Wild:-He was the British battalion commander. Before Spain he'd been involved in the Invergordon mutiny, as had Fred Copeman. Later on in the summer of 1938 Wild received a hand wound and was hospitalised. There were problems involving him and Maurice Ryan, see below.
Maurice Ryan:- Maurice Ryan was a bit of a problem in the battalion. He was a larger than life character. He was from limerick and according to himself had been to university in England. He was a tall, burly person, a complete extrovert and fearless. He was also an excellent machine gunner. On the occasion of Pandit Nehru's visit tot the battalion at Marsda he demonstrated his skill with that weapon knocking chunks out of a tree across the valley. He could be a very amiable and amusing character. Unfortunately, he was always kicking against the pricks, in a manner of speaking.
On one occasion when I was on sentry duty at battalion headquarters he was placed in my care until the following morning on a charge of being drunk and abusive. He just lay on the ground and went asleep. The following morning he used his charm and powers of persuasion to induce me, when I was going off duty, to fetch his mess tin when I returned to camp and bring it back to him. To me this was above and beyond the call of duty but he succeeded in getting me to do it.
Vino was his downfall. During the Ebro battle he turned his gun on his own comrades while roaring drunk. Eventually he was executed. All this was well known to those of us in Mataro Hospital as new casualties arrived during the battle. I heard additional details from Prendergast in London during WW2. Sam Wild had given him the details. Sam and George Fletcher had taken Ryan for a walk and informed him of the decision that had been taken. He responded calmly, 'You wouldn't do that Sam, would you?'; But he was wrong. He was shot in the back of the head.
I was always very sceptical about the rumours that he was a spy. It is not the custom of spies to go around waving banners, shouting and generally drawing attention to themselves. Since he was aware that we were preparing to cross the Ebro it seems remarkable that Franco was taken by surprise. Some spy!
Michael McInerney:- The CP in Ireland was so weak it was decided by the British party to assist them by sending some of their leading people who were Irish back home. Jim Prendergast and Michael McInerney were chosen. If I remember correctly Prendergast returned early in 1941. There was some delay about McInerney's return. He was a married man with a young daughter. He wasn't very enthusiastic about leaving his job as a railway clerk and he knew that his wife, Nancy, would never have agreed. Eventually, the family did return to Ireland, ostensibly on a holiday. Michael then explained to Nancy that the British government had withdrawn his permit to return to Britain. Nancy had no reason to doubt this explanation.
Very soon after his return the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, June 1941. This changed the whole situation. Communists who had been supporting the policy of neutrality could no longer do so in the 26 counties. On the other hand, it would have been impossible to advocate support for the war in the 26 counties. The party dissolved. Both McInerney and Prendergast ended up in the 6 counties where McInerney became a CP official and Prendergast joined the British forces.
In the fifties when Mac was the Industrial Correspondent of the Irish Times, Bert Smyllie, the editor, received a telephone call from Archbishop McQuaid instructing him to sack McInerney because he had a record as a communist. Smyllie told the Archbishop that he employed McInerney because he was good at his job. In effect he told the Archbishop to mind his own business.
More material by/about Eugene is also available on this site:
There are 2 obituaries available about him:One by Manus O'Riordan, the other appeared on the Indymedia site.
In addition to this piece, Eugene has written several few other pieces.Here are some that are now online on this site.
A [funny] article about Eugene's street politics in the mid 1930's - Street Journalism.
A letter to the Irish Times about Mattie Ryan, Pandit Nehru and a shooting exhibition.
The Plaque on the Wall, a report of a visit back to the hospital in Spain.
Letters from Josefina [about his time in hospital and letters between him and Josefina, one of the nurses.]
An interesting piece from Saothar, on Moscow's International Lenin School, attended by Bill McGregor, an IB volunteer.
A funny piece about a brief period when Eugene was in charge.
The Siege of Connolly House. An interesting piece about a siege of the place the CP offices.
A letter to the Irish Times about the catholic church's refusal to allow a funeral service for IB volunteer Tony Fox.
Would anyone who knows of further articles by Eugene please get in touch.
Belfast, 6th August 2003. firstname.lastname@example.org
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